The Rabbi in the Public Square


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks retires as Britain’s chief rabbi in September after serving in the position for twenty-two years. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Chief Rabbi

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks retires as Britain’s chief rabbi in September after serving in the position for twenty-two years. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Chief Rabbi


This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue

Columbia University’s Hillel House auditorium is packed with frum students on a late October evening in 2011. The hall seats over 300, but scores of young people are standing as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks comes to the podium. “We all know why Jewish students go to university,” he begins. “To find a shidduch [marriage partner]!” The audience bursts into “Od Yishama” as a newly betrothed couple comes to the front. It is easy to forget that the jovial pulpit rabbi leading the song sits in Britain’s House of Lords.

Orthodoxy’s Unofficial Ambassador
Rabbi Sacks, who retires as Britain’s chief rabbi in September after serving in the position for twenty-two years, is Orthodoxy’s unofficial ambassador to the world: philosopher, political theorist, diplomat and advocate for Jewish communities and the State of Israel. The author of twenty-four books, he has made a great impact on American Orthodoxy through his weekly parashah commentaries as well as his Koren editions of the siddur and machzor. As a pulpit rabbi and teacher, though, Rabbi Sacks also has earned the affection of the observant world.

Rabbi Sacks was born in London in 1948 and has been married to his wife, Elaine, since 1970. They have three children. Prior to taking his current post, Rabbi Sacks served as principal of Jews’ College as well as rabbi of the Golders Green and Marble Arch synagogues. Rabbi Sacks’ impact is likely to grow as a broader audience comes to know his Torah scholarship. But his greatest contribution may be to have defined a new kind of role for an Orthodox rabbi—that of public intellectual who applies Torah insights to policy matters in the public square.

In an increasingly secular United Kingdom, Rabbi Sacks, who was educated at Cambridge, has become Britain’s most prominent voice on behalf of religion, debating “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins before live and television audiences, and defending faith against the challenges of science. In the process, Rabbi Sacks has become something of a hero for British Christians. Francis Phillips, a book reviewer for the UK Catholic Herald, wrote in September 2012, “it is a great pity that the Chief Rabbi can’t, for obvious reasons, apply for the job of being the next Archbishop of Canterbury: he is an intellectual—but with a gift for clear exposition; he believes in God, marriage, the family; he is conciliatory rather than divisive; and from his own religious and historical perspective he sees the marginalization of faith for what it is.”

Rabbi Sacks’ influence on the public life of the United Kingdom is vastly disproportionate to the size of the British Jewish community, consisting of only 277,000 members according to a recent UK census. This is due not only to his extraordinary personal qualities, but to the unique circumstances of British public life. Britain is a monarchy with an established church headed by the sovereign. The integration of church and state does not suppress other religions. On the contrary, by making the leader of British Jewry a member of the Establishment, the British system elevates the role of the chief rabbi. Remarkably, the chief rabbi has become England’s most visible advocate of traditional religious faith as the Church of England has become more liberal.

Rabbi Sacks’ predecessor, Baron Immanuel Jakobovits, who served as chief rabbi from 1967 to 1991, brought the rabbinate into the public square during the Margaret Thatcher administration. When the Church of England attacked the policies of the Conservative prime minister, Rabbi Jakobovits defended her, arguing that the state does the most good by opening up opportunities for individual advancement rather than distributing welfare. Margaret Thatcher, in turn, remained a lifelong supporter of Israel and a strong advocate for Soviet Jews.

Rabbi Sacks is less identified with the government of the day than his predecessor, but his influence is far broader in British society. In more than twenty books and hundreds of articles and commentaries, he has become the most effective advocate for faith in Britain’s public square, as well as the most widely read living teacher in the English-speaking Orthodox world.

In a highly publicized September 2012 debate with Richard Dawkins, for example, Rabbi Sacks denounced his opponent’s characterization of God as anti-Semitic. Dawkins described “the God of the Old Testament” as a “vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser” as well as a “misogynist,” “homophobic,” “racist,” “pestilential” and “infanticidal.” Rabbi Sacks told Dawkins on BBC Television, “I did not read [this] as a joke; I read it as a profoundly anti-Semitic passage,” adding that Dawkins had used these stereotypes because he was a “Christian atheist” rather than a “Jewish atheist.”

The Universal Value of the Biblical Covenant
No review of Rabbi Sacks’ writing would do justice to its breadth, but one recent book illustrates Rabbi Sacks’ presence in the British public square. His The Home We Build Together, published in 2007, begins with a withering critique of multiculturalism as a poor foundation for liberal democracy, and concludes with a defense of the concept of covenant as the foundation for successful modern society.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaking at the OU.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaking at the OU.

“Liberal democracy is in danger,” Rabbi Sacks warned. “The real clash is between liberalism and multiculturalism. Liberalism is about the rights of individuals, multiculturalism is about the rights of groups, and they are incompatible. Common to both is that they see the relationship between citizens and the state as purely contractual . . .  Society becomes a hotel. You pay the price; you get a room . . . The trouble is that a hotel is a place where no one is at home.”

Today’s society, Rabbi Sacks contended, cannot flourish if immigrant minorities are merely tolerated as guests. Nor can it survive as a collection of self-isolating communities under the so-called multicultural model. How is it possible to achieve what he calls integration without assimilation, where each community contributes to the common good in its own unique way? He finds the answer in a Torah-based concept of society. When the people of Israel stand before Mount Sinai, Rabbi Sacks writes:

Moses brings them God’s proposal, and asks them, in effect, to decide whether to accept it or not. The fact of choice is fundamental, for the Bible portrays God not as an overwhelming force but as a constitutional monarch. The supreme power makes space for human freedom. There is no justified government without the consent of the governed, even if the governor is the creator of heaven and earth . . . God makes space for human freedom and invites an entire people to become, in the rabbinic phrase, “His partners in the work of creation.”

The Bible, Rabbi Sacks claims, has universal significance for human society:

The story of the Bible is the tangled tale of the consequences of God’s fateful gift of human freedom. Faith, or more precisely, faithfulness, is born where the freedom of human beings meets the freedom of God in an unconstrained act of mutual commitment. That is why historically, wherever the Hebrew Bible has made an impact on political life—usually in some form of Calvinism—it has done so in the name of “a new birth of freedom.”

This citation from the Gettysburg address resonates with American political thought, to be sure, but it is still remarkable for the world to be instructed on the universal value of the Biblical covenant by a rabbi who sits in Britain’s House of Lords. In a chapter entitled “A religious defense of liberal democracy,” Rabbi Sacks concludes, “Earthly authority is subject to overarching ethical imperatives. No earthly power is ultimate. That is the great religious contribution to liberty.”

And Rabbi Sacks adds this remarkable assertion: “The concept of the moral limits of power is more important to freedom than is democracy. For democracy contains within it a fatal danger. Tocqueville gave it a name: the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ A majority can oppress a minority. The only defense against this is to establish the moral limits of power . . . Biblical politics is limited politics—the political of liberal democracies, not of the Greek city state.”

Here we see a clear distinction between Torah insights and run-of-the-mill secular political science, which emphasizes the mechanics of the democratic process rather than the overarching principles that govern it. As the American Orthodox Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod argues, “To discuss theological criteria for the constitution of a secular republic runs against the grain of modern political thought, even though constitutional restrictions on popular sovereignty imply reliance on an authority that is greater than human.”

Rabbi Sacks makes the startling claim that the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai has universal applicability to human affairs, and that the Jewish experience is normative rather than idiosyncratic. It is a deeply rooted understanding of politics that offers a religious alternative to the impoverished thinking of modern secular society.

The unique circumstances of his office gave Rabbi Sacks a bully pulpit, but he has brought to that pulpit an encyclopedic command of Western thought, profound Torah scholarship and a boldness of expression. The role of rabbi as public intellectual, pioneered by Rabbis Jakobovits and Sacks, might be transplanted to America. At Yeshiva University, for example, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik leads the new Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. (Rabbi Soloveichik, who gave the benediction at the 2012 Republican National Convention, writes on rabbinic thought and American democracy.)

The Significance of Kol Nidre
Rabbi Sacks’ role as public intellectual is so effective because it is rooted in the Torah scholarship that English-speaking Jews have come to appreciate through his weekly Covenant and Conversation parashah comments. He shows no signs of flagging; on the contrary, Rabbi Sacks, now in his early sixties, has recently produced some of his most original work. His scholarly influence is likely to grow as Orthodox readers become familiar with it. It is presumptuous to single out individual insights from Rabbi Sacks’ wide range of contributions, but one or two recent examples stand out. His introduction to the new Koren Yom Kippur Machzor explains why repentance and forgiveness are Jewish concepts previously unknown to the ancient world. His account centers on the relationship between Joseph and Judah—the first person to forgive, and the first person to be forgiven, respectively, in all of history.

Rabbi Sacks expressed excitement over a discovery about the significance of Kol Nidre at his annual Elul shiur last September. Available in full on the chief rabbi’s web site, Rabbi Sacks’ lecture resolves a longstanding question. As he observed, “Kol Nidre is the strangest prayer ever to enter the prayer book. It is not a prayer but a legal formula for the annulment of vows. The first time we hear of Kol Nidre is in the eighth century when it is being opposed. The great sages, the Gaonim and the Rishonim, were against it. Rabbeinu Tam thought it was scandalous and quite wrong. Almost every halachic authority of any weight said it doesn’t belong. Yet it has outlived its critics.”

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks joining Prime Minister Cameron for the lighting of the Chanukah lights in Downing Street. Photo: Nicola Hammer

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks joining Prime Minister Cameron for the lighting of the Chanukah lights in Downing Street. Photo: Nicola Hammer

Many objections were raised against Kol Nidre, including that the annulment of vows should be done by individuals before a beth din on Rosh Hashanah rather than by an announcement to a congregation. And it brought Jews into disrepute among gentiles who claimed that Jews did not take their vows seriously. The popular explanations for the purpose of Kol Nidre—for example, that it allowed Jews to repudiate forced conversions—are manifestly ahistorical.

First, Rabbi Sacks observed that Kol Nidre signals that for the twenty-five hours of Yom Kippur, the shul will become a court of law. Second, the annulment of vows is central to the Jewish concept of repentance. One can annul a vow that one never would have made in light of changed circumstances. The repentant Jew has become a different person, one who would not have committed the sin for which he has repented. Sins we committed deliberately become inadvertent sins through teshuvah. Repentance thus changes the past retroactively by making us different people who would have acted differently under different circumstances. “Remorse nullifies not the act, but the intent,” and transforms an unpardonable, deliberate sin into an inadvertent sin that can be requited by sacrifice. The first lines spoken after Kol Nidre, Rabbi Sacks added, state that pardon shall be granted to the whole congregation of Israel “ki l’chol ha’am bishgaga”—because the people have sinned inadvertently.

Yom Kippur takes place on the tenth of Tishrei, Rabbi Sacks observed, when God forgave the people of Israel for the Sin of the Golden Calf. A midrash states that God told Moses that He had already vowed to destroy anyone who worshipped idols, and Moses responded, “God, did You not teach me how to do hatarat nedarim?” No one can annul his own vow, but a rav can annul the vows of another person. “Moshe wraps himself in a tallit,” Rabbi Sacks continued, “and sat in front of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and God asks Moshe for permission to annul His vow.” Thus, God annulled a vow He regretted to destroy the people of Israel. God could forgive Israel only because of hatarat nedarim. That is why we have Yom Kippur, and why Kol Nidre encapsulates the courtroom drama of the day, where one man stood before Heaven pleading for the forgiveness of the Jewish people.

It is a remarkable chiddush, expounded with Rabbi Sacks’ characteristic lucidity and humor.

In the twenty-two years of his rabbinate, Rabbi Sacks has set an example of self-confident intervention into public life informed by original scholarship and striking eloquence. With the burdens of office behind him, he will have more freedom to speak and write, and the Jewish world eagerly anticipates his teachings.

David P. Goldman writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online and PJ Media. He also writes regularly for the Jewish webzine Tablet and has published in Hakirah, Commentary and other Jewish publications. He is a former senior editor for the religious monthly First Things. He davens at Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City.

This article was featured in the Fall 2013 issue of Jewish Action.